Friday 7 March 2014

Big X

Every new scare gets a new Big Industry opponent. People generally are suspicious of business, markets, and the word Big when it has the big scary capital-B. And so the only possible opposition to anti-smoking measures could come from Big Tobacco (and never from smokers, who we presume to be slaves to the habit); the only possible opposition to anti-alcohol measures could come from Big Alcohol (and never from moderate drinkers bearing the brunt of most of this stuff); the only possible opposition to sugar taxes could come from Big Soda (and never from people who like to have a Coke every now and again and resent the intrusion).

The Christchurch Press has printed at least its share of Big X scaremongering stories, though it's hardly the worst out there.

Today's A recent Press editorial sensibly opposes the latest Otago policy push: bans on advertising particular kinds of food to children. The Press's editor writes:
Junk food and junk-food advertising with all its attendant devices to make it appealing to the susceptible have been around for much longer than that. Coca-Cola, for instance, has used pictures of slim and attractive young people to sell its product for more than a century. Whatever the cause of the appalling and relatively recent, rise of obesity, advertising must have had little to do with it.

In addition, advertising of food to children is already governed by an Advertising Standards Authority code which says that food advertisements should not undermine the food and nutrition policies of the Government, the Ministry of Health food and nutrition guidelines nor the wellbeing of children. Advertisements should also observe a high standard of social responsibility to consumers and to society and not undermine the role of parents in educating children to have a balanced diet and be healthy individuals.

That last point is the nub of the problem. Children may be suggestible and advertisements should not target them. But parents are ultimately responsible for what their children eat and for educating them on what is good to eat. Tackling that would be far more effective in lowering obesity than any advertising ban.
I agree with The Press here. It's also consistent with The Press's editorial position on a few other related matters.

But a media that has done so much to fuel demand for stories blaming Big X for everything, that has allowed Otago public health folks repeated unchallenged assertions in stories about the evils of Big X, that has only rarely countenanced in its health reporting that there could be principled opposition rather than just interested opposition to Otago public health proposals, well, that kind of media leaves itself very vulnerable when Otago starts proposing ad bans. Because they helped to build the generalised public mood that only Big Media, dependent on Big Advertising dollars from Big X, could ever oppose Otago's sensible and moderate proposals to ban advertising.

No surprise then that the third comment down on The Press's editorial reads "A company that makes its money from selling advertising creates an editorial suggesting advertising bans are not a good idea? Conflicted much editor?"

Those who tend the fever swamps risk malaria.


  1. Hang on... It's all very well talking about "principled" opposition to such a ban, but it might be useful to state some of the principles, rather than just assume that they're obvious. The bit of editorial that you quote doesn't make a single argument against such a ban, and neither do you. (Well, there's an argument about lack of reason - para 1 says it wasn't advertising wot done it.)
    To try to head off the obvious one ("free speech, duh!"): I'm not convinced modern ads are speech (they're mostly affective mood pieces, and there's nothing to say we have to define that as speech); one might be able to argue that no commercial ad is speech (though this would be hard because of the massive grey areas); speech to children is obviously different; other duties can override the free speech argument (e.g. hate speech - here's another type of speech causing a massive social ill).
    Clearly there are responses to all of these arguments, and many more lines of argument besides. I hope you'll make some of them.

  2. A few reasons to oppose a ban on advertising unhealthy foods:

    1) Unclear advertising affects total category consumption rather than just brand choices within the category, in which case an ad ban can make it harder for new products to break into the category.
    2) Freedom of speech: I can't see why affective mood pieces aren't speech; brand affiliation provides consumers with affiliative utility (otherwise everybody'd but supermarket brand cola instead of Coke); obvious likely creep from "ban it if kids might like the ad" to "ban all ads for unhealthy food even if they're not obviously targeted at kids".
    3) No clear reason why we'd want to ban ads for this category of good and not for others. If it's the "to kids" that's the problem, then what about ads for toys? Not hard to imagine arguments around "Well, the ads make the kids pressure their parents for toys, their parents feel bad if they can't afford them, some of these are just Veblen goods anyway...". If it's the "it's bad for you" bit that's the problem, why not bans on ads for any kind of Veblen goods? I'd take a strong free-speech line against any of those; bans on ads for sugary drinks make bans on all these other things more likely.
    4) I also don't think the appropriate response to hate speech is censorship; rather, it's plenty of speech opposing it.

    I'm a pluralist. Liberty's a value, other things are values too. But I can't see that the potential health gains here, which are likely small, outweigh the imposition on speech rights.

  3. I do not know about your girls Eric, but children can exert tremendous pressure on the parents. You hear it all the time in the supermarkets , and the parent gives in.
    And they are cunning. I remember visiting my cousin and drinking with her while she refused her son Coca Cola.
    He said ' you drink alcohol and you will not let me have soft drink'.
    Well he didn't say ' soft drink' he said ' coke' which is nearer the mark.
    A long time ago I used to be able to get my daughter in and out of McDonalds. onto the swings and things they had for kids, in those days, and then she saw TV McDonalds burger.
    She said ' Dad take me to McDonald burger'

  4. IRD has everyone's contact address. Other than whether someone is normally resident in NZ - and we have the massive border security/immigration apparatus in place to verify that - IRD doesn't need to know exactly where you live for tax purposes as long as they can communicate with you. As far as I know the IRD thinks I live with my accountant. So there is, I presume, no process for verifying residential addresses.

    In the USA and other jurisdictions it is a different story where local government is also responsible for delivery of social services. In such places it may be compulsory to register with the local authority and there may exist national or local identity documentation to prove eligibility for those services.

    As far as I am concerned the proposal fails on practical grounds before we even consider its economic or public policy merits.

    Of course some form of capitation scheme whereby councils received revenue out of the tax system based on normally resident population would be a way more efficient way of collecting revenue than the current rates setting and collecting system. But good luck on trying to convince central government to raise tax rates to compensate for the abolition of rates..

  5. Thanks for the reply. After posting, I realised that I'd kind of missed your point about Big X, which is also an interesting one. Don't you think that Big X really exist, though? Take tobacco: there really was a multibillion dollar industry which tried to systematically subvert all social discourse on the topic of its products, including scientific research, policy discourse, public debate, representation in art... It's not a chimera, they really did that. The evidence came out in the trials. Now, I don't know to what extent Big Food is doing the same thing; or to what extent Big Arms do it for their products. But it seems like a reasonable assumption that they are doing similar stuff. After all, they're programmed to. Corporations exist only to seek profits.
    Given the above, responding with skepticism to any claim by a major industry - including dismissing it by attaching the label "Big X" - is actually a rational response.

    On the free speech issue, now I've started it: it sounds like ethically we're not that far apart. I'm a pluralist as well. So I guess it comes down to a few empirical questions.
    1) Does advertising cause kids to eat rubbish?
    2) Does eating rubbish cause kids and adults to be sicker?
    3) How much harm would a ban cause?
    If your claim that advertising doesn't make kids eat more is correct, then I absolutely agree, there would be no basis for a ban. If it's not the food products themselves, but lifestyles that are making us fat and sick, then again there's no basis. Those are questions that good microeconomists and medical researchers should be able to answer.
    There's probably more room for debate on (3). I just don't fear restrictions on freedom of speech. I'm from the UK, where there traditionally have been light restrictions, and they didn't seem to be particularly chilling. Specifically to this debate: I do not believe that banning food advertising to children would harm our society one iota. I'm much more willing to test (1) and (2) by enacting a ban and seeing if things get better.
    What are the terrible consequences of banning these adverts?

  6. I'm pretty reluctant to ban voluntary transactions absent strong evidence of that those transactions cause substantial harms. The burden of proof has to lie on those who would reduce freedom.

    Here are some kid-targeted ads that I would reckon best banned as being very likely to do substantial harm:
    - An ad explaining slowly to children how to remove the child-lock caps from things in the medicine cabinet and how mummy and daddy only keep them hidden because they taste so good;
    - An ad demonstrating the fun to be had by sticking two wires into the power outlet;
    - And so on.

    I remember ads for Trix, CocoPuffs and the like being mildly amusing when I was young. We never ate the stuff, but the ads were amusing nonetheless. Silly rabbit in those Trix commercials, always thwarted.